Northwest News

Amtrak says trains are safe but states have more demands

Early drama of Amtrak train derailment recorded in 911 calls

Good Samaritans were in abundance calling in early reports of the Amtrak train derailment near Chambers Bay Golf Course in Steilacoom on Sunday, according to official 911 calls obtained by The News Tribune.
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Good Samaritans were in abundance calling in early reports of the Amtrak train derailment near Chambers Bay Golf Course in Steilacoom on Sunday, according to official 911 calls obtained by The News Tribune.

Washington and Oregon state officials are calling on Amtrak to produce an emergency-response plan and improve how it informs passengers, in the aftermath of Sunday’s derailment at Chambers Bay, south of Tacoma.

“While the derail of (the train) was an emergency and unplanned situation, past communications from customers continually indicate confusion and delay during emergency events and when bus service is required,” says the states’ letter, dated Thursday.

The states own most of the Amtrak Cascades passenger cars and provide a 40 percent operating subsidy, after fares, for service connecting Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle; Portland; and Eugene.

Their letter was signed by Ron Pate, Washington State Department of Transportation rail director, and Hal Gard, Oregon Department of Transportation rail and transit administrator. They instruct Amtrak to supply information by late July, but didn’t mention any kind of leverage or threaten any penalties.

Amtrak didn’t have an immediate response Friday.

The states also asked for estimates of the cost of repairs to the Oregon-owned passenger railcars on the damaged train, called the Mt. Jefferson, and said they expect Amtrak to pay those expenses.

Even after the train was fully evacuated, Amtrak made no effort to address the passengers with any PA system or megaphone to tell us what to do next.

Nathan Hinkle, Amtrak passenger from Portland

State officials also expressed “our disappointment in the lack of any official communication from any of the senior leadership at Amtrak,” such as CEO Richard Anderson, about the derailment. They thanked local Seattle superintendents for prompt communication Sunday.

Amtrak has previously faced complaints by users who felt left in the dark following mudslides or cancellations.

Some riders, such as Nathan Hinkle of Portland, say people were milling around on the parallel tracks after the derailment, which seems unsafe. “Even after the train was fully evacuated, Amtrak made no effort to address the passengers with any PA system or megaphone to tell us what to do next,” he said Friday.

Jason Biggs, WSDOT rail-operations manager, said the public has aired both compliments and anger about Amtrak since the incident. The state earlier praised Amtrak for sending buses promptly to take passengers to Tacoma and Seattle.

A locomotive, baggage car and two passenger cars passed through a switchlike “derailer” device, which channeled them off track into gravel. Some of the 267 passengers sustained minor injuries.

The derailer’s purpose at this site is to prevent a train from hitting or going off the 103-year-old Chambers Creek drawbridge while it’s opening or closing.

The engineer, traveling northbound, should have seen two yellow lights, then stopped at a red signal just before the drawbridge.

Under what railroaders call “manual interlocking,” the act of manipulating the drawbridge will trigger the stop signal and open the derailer, said Mike Elliott, a former Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen chairman for Washington state.

“Any time the bridge is not down and locked, the other components are going to be activated and do their job,” he said.

An Amtrak media statement Thursday said the train exceeded a 40-mph speed limit approaching the bridge. The engineer braked near the final signal, and Elliott estimates the locomotive traveled below 20 mph through the derail point.

The engineer has been suspended, Amtrak said. Further investigation and possible disciplinary hearings lie ahead.

“The thing for the public to know is: Amtrak is safe,” said Elliott. “We’ve been striving, with Amtrak, to be the safest operation we can be,” he said, whether that involves retraining, equipment, or the satellite-based train control system to be installed next year.

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